★★★★ - THE GUARDIAN
- With his third film, the writer-director Barry Jenkins carries with him an impossible weight of expectation, the kind of which he was less burdened with when Moonlight premiered in 2016. Before then he had made an acclaimed yet small-scale 2008 drama called Medicine for Melancholy, and little did any of us know just how far his follow-up would go, from gaining enthused festival buzz to becoming a groundbreaking best picture Oscar winner. Two years later he returns with a wider, hungrier audience in tow and his decision to adapt a much-loved James Baldwin novel attaches an even greater level of anticipation along with unfair yet unavoidable pressure.
While If Beale Street Could Talk has a more traditionally structured plot than Moonlight, it’s still far from conventional, with Jenkins telling his story via a shifting, time-jumping narrative. The story focuses on Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), childhood friends who become lovers yet whose bond is tested when Fonny is falsely accused of rape. As he awaits trial behind bars, Tish finds out she is pregnant and, with the help of those around her, works to try to get him released before the baby arrives.
It’s a film with love at its root, both familial and romantic, and Jenkins fills so much of it with a radiating warmth. The decision to move back and forth through the story allows us to understand and invest in the central relationship and there’s a nuanced delicacy in how he conveys the early stages of falling for someone. It’s the small moments that make you realise and, as he showed us in Moonlight’s heart-grabbing diner scene, he has a skill for recognising the important subtleties of body language. In matching the newcomer Layne with James, best known for playing Jesse Owens in Race, he has found a pairing whose chemistry charms and bewitches – with every scene we feel more engaged and then enraged when they’re pulled further apart
As a black man in America, Fonny is the victim of a system cruelly stacked against him and Jenkins weaves outrage into his film without a heavy hand. Anger over unbearable injustice is replaced with sadness over seemingly insurmountable loss, of the artist, husband and father he might never be, and there’s a stinging prescience in Fonny’s downfall. But there remains an optimism throughout and an unapologetic belief in the restorative power of love. Jenkins’ love for the material shines through yet the downside is that it can often cloud his vision. He has spoken about his desire to remain faithful to the text and at times, especially with Tish’s narration, the dialogue can feel too verbose, too constructed for the screen. The languid pace and unconventional structure works for the most part but at times it can feel a tad unfocused, with some scenes failing to land with the same crashing impact as others (Dave Franco’s cameo as a sentimental landlord proves a particular head-scratcher).
Yet our attention endures as Jenkins remains a constantly evolving visual artist. The film is achingly beautiful, each frame artfully composed and each song choice thoughtfully matched. With a wider canvas and what appears to be a bigger budget than he had for Moonlight, Jenkins has created a film rich with lingering imagery, without it feeling too overstylised. Working with a bigger cast, he again showcases his knack for human choreography, picking actors so perfectly suited that one small complaint is that I wanted to see more of them. As Tish’s mother, Regina King is wonderfully measured, with a natural maternalism that leaps from a need to nurture to a desperate need to protect in a standout confrontation scene in the final act. The ever-underused Teyonah Parris, so good in the criminally underseen sitcom Survivor’s Remorse, is effectively feisty in regrettably brief doses and there are small, impressive turns from Colman Domingo as Tish’s father and Brian Tyree Henry, who delivers a chilling speech about the after-effects of prison in another standout scene.
As the focal lovers, these are star-making turns from Layne and James, the latter in particular making a searing impact. He’s effortlessly charismatic but also gut-wrenchingly vulnerable and his tortured face will burn its way into your memory. Given the film’s unabashed belief in love, it’s satisfying to feel so much while watching it. Sensorily and emotionally, it’s an almost overwhelming experience.